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Battle of the bondsmen

When Bob Licata sold his bail-bonding business in downtown Inverness several months ago, he agreed to stay away from bail bonding in Citrus County for the next five years.

Now, he's back in town and trying to re-establish his business. And he's facing a lawsuit as a result.

Since Licata was away, the state granted legal rights to his old business name, "Bob's Bail Bonds," to his arch rival, Gene Hood Bail Bonds.

Hood also has moved into Licata's old office on Courthouse Square and taken over his old telephone numbers, Licata said.

Last Wednesday, Hood filed a civil complaint alleging that Licata legally agreed to cease bail bonding in Inverness when he sold out and left the market. Under that agreement, Hood argues, a judge has authority to order Licata to get out of business immediately.

"I've been hoodwinked," Licata joked Friday.

Gene Hood did not return a telephone message left at his office Friday morning. A copy of his civil complaint, which spells out the company's stance, was on file at the Citrus County Courthouse.

Hood wants Circuit Judge William Edwards to enter a legal injunction against Licata, forcing him to honor the competition agreement. No initial hearing date has been set for the case.

Hood writes the lion's share of bail bonds in Citrus County, and he is not about to let Licata, once his strongest competitor, back into the game without a fight.

Bail bonds allow people who are charged with crimes to be released from jail pending the outcome of their cases.

People usually post 10 percent of their bail amount in cash, and a bondsman holds collateral for the remainder. If people don't show up in court when they're supposed to, a judge may call in the bond and force the bondsman to forfeit the total amount.

Last June, after five years in the business in Inverness, Licata sold out to David Kennedy. "There were many family matters that needed to be taken care of. I didn't know how long I'd be away," Licata said.

Licata sold everything, from telephone numbers and pencils, pens and office supplies to leasing rights for his downtown Inverness office. He even sold his corporate name, Bob's Bail Bonds.

Licata also signed a "non-compete" arrangement, which meant he would not operate a bail-bonding business within 50 miles of Citrus County for the next five years, court records showed.

For reasons still unclear, Kennedy quit the business in October. According to court records, he quickly found a buyer: Gene Hood.

Hood's operation moved out of its building on Main Street, which was in the way of a state project to widen Main Street, and into Licata's old office.

He also gained legal right to the business name Bob's Bail Bonds, Licata said.

Then, last month, Licata returned to Inverness. He said he had heard that Kennedy had sold the business and Licata wanted to come back.

Licata opened a new shop, right across Courthouse Square from his old place. The sign outside says, "Bob Licata Bail Bonds."

Hood cried foul, saying the "non-compete" agreement had transferred in the sale and was binding on Licata.

But Licata said the agreement was void the day Kennedy sold the business.

"I'm a man of my word. If Kennedy had still been in business, I would not be in the business," Licata said. "But when he (Kennedy) left that business, he left that non-compete" agreement.

The litigation is only part of the bad news for Licata. In five years he had built up a strong business and clientele. Now his office location and name have changed. The result has been confusion _ for clients, and for him.

"I have nightmares about accidentally walking into that (the original) office," Licata said.

He also is struggling to make contact with old clients and tell them about his new location and telephone number. When people dial Licata's old telephone number, it rings into Hood's office.

"Most people don't even know I'm back here," Licata said Friday. People think they're calling me, and he (Hood) is not gonna tell them any different."

Licata said he's counting the days until new telephone books are issued and he can spread the word about his new name and number.

He dismisses suggestions that he try a new line of work and avoid costly litigation.

"I'm a bail bondsman. There aren't many things for a bail bondsman to do," he said. "It's a curse more than a choice of occupation."

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